What ‘Do the Right Thing’ Can Still Teach Us

Courtesy of Film Art Gallery

Note: This will be a full-spoilers discussion of Do the Right Thing. $1 will be donated to Color of Change for each view this post gets up to $100.

Spike Lee’s third feature-film Do the Right Thing premiered in the summer of 1989. Inspired by the murder of Michael Griffith and the 1986 Howard Beach Incident, this film explores related themes of police brutality and racism — which has sparked debate and varying interpretations of the film’s events ever since. Nearly thirty-one years later to the date, one thing remains clear: very little has changed.

Do the Right Thing paints a vibrant picture of Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, and the people who live there; protagonist Mookie (Lee), a pizza delivery-man, Da Mayor (Ossie Davis), a drunk who reminds Mookie to “do the right thing,” Smiley (Roger Guenveur Smith), a mentally disabled man who sells photographs of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X that he’s colored on, Mister Senor Love Daddy (Samuel L. Jackson), the neighborhood’s radio DJ, and Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn), who carries around a boombox blasting exclusively “Fight the Power” by Public Enemy. These residents frequent Sal’s Pizzeria, the restaurant owned by Italian-American Sal (Danny Aiello). Along with Mookie, Sal’s two sons Pino (John Turturro) and Vito (Richard Edson) work at the shop, though Pino is outspoken about wanting to leave this predominantly Black neighborhood and frequently uses racial slurs when speaking with customers. On the hottest day of the summer, existing racial tensions in the neighborhood reach a literal boiling point.

The film begins with a stunning sequence featuring Mookie’s girlfriend Tina (Rosie Perez, in her feature film debut) dancing to “Fight the Power” over the opening credits. Lee is bold and unapologetic in his style, a tonality that will carry through to the moment the end credits roll and is further emphasized by a visually warm color palette and wide angle lenses that exaggerate his characters’ features.

Courtesy of The Vinyl Bridge

As Indiewire’s Tambay Obenson notes in her discussion of Do the Right Thing on its 30th anniversary, this approach stands in stark contrast to “safer” depictions of race-relations, like recent Best Picture winner Green Book. It is also worth mentioning that Do the Right Thing was ignored in the Best Picture category in the year that Driving Miss Daisy (arguably a spiritual predecessor to Green Book) won. Unlike these films, Lee is not interested in sugar-coating his message to make it more palatable for viewers who might take issue with his confrontational approach — which is why Do the Right Thing remains in the modern zeitgeist the way these other films have not.

These tensions are best represented by the relationship between Sal and the neighborhood residents. Unlike his son Pino, who makes no attempts to hide how he feels about the Black people who eat at the pizzeria, Sal’s racism manifests more subtly at first. Sal has framed photos of famous Italian-Americans hanging on a “Wall of Fame” in his restaurant. When another neighborhood resident, Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito), takes issue with the fact that there are no “brothers” on the wall — like MLK or Malcolm X — Sal dismisses the idea. He also refuses to serve Radio Raheem until the latter agrees to turn off “Fight the Power.”

These matters may seem trivial, and one could even point out that Sal seems to care for these residents by commenting on how he is “very proud” of how they grew up on his pizza, or how he buys one of Smiley’s photos after Pino insults him. However, it is precisely these “trivialities” that lead to a confrontation at the pizzeria later that night between Sal, Buggin’ Out and Radio Raheem that becomes violent. Sal’s thin layer of civility and tolerance gets peeled off as he resorts to the same racist insults his son used earlier in the film. Racism does not always exist explicitly on the surface; it exists in less overt instances like Sal’s dismissal of Buggin’ Out’s complaint, or his clear distaste for Radio Raheem’s music.

Courtesy of The New York Times

Furthermore, had Sal listened to what his Black neighbors were trying to tell him, perhaps what follows could have been avoided; their confrontation attracts local police officers, who seize Buggin’ Out and Radio Raheem. Raheem is placed in a choke-hold, and despite pleas to release his grip, the officer refuses, causing Raheem to suffocate and die. They arrest Buggin’ Out and throw Raheem’s dead body in the back of a police car, causing outrage among the witnesses who decry this injustice. This, too, is unfortunately a familiar tale: the unjustifiable murder of a Black man at the hands of a police officer. It is a cycle of violence and oppression that can be traced back for centuries. Radio Raheem, like many Black people in real life, is a victim of this systemic problem of police brutality that has yet to be solved.

As tensions rise further, Mookie picks up a trash can and throws it at the pizzeria, shattering the glass. The crowd then destroys the restaurant. Much of the discussion regarding the film since has centered on whether in this moment, Mookie “does the right thing,” as Da Mayor asked him to do. It’s telling that Lee, in the DVD commentary of the film, has remarked that a person of color has never asked him this question. Speaking as a white woman viewing this film, I would propose that it’s less important to pass judgement on whether Mookie falls into the binary categories of “right” or “wrong.” Rather, it’s more vital to understand and find empathy for why Mookie, a Black man who watched his friend be murdered, would do that in the first place. Yes, Sal’s pizzeria was destroyed, and I’m not advocating for property damage. But his building can be replaced; Radio Raheem’s life cannot. That’s the difference. 

Film and Television
Courtesy of Indiewire

Lee ends the film with one final notion to ponder by including two quotes — one from MLK and one from Malcolm X:


These quotes seem to be in opposition to each other, in the way that these two leaders are sometimes framed as being of opposing mindsets. But, like so many other instances in Do the Right Thing, there is more nuance than that. I will turn to Lee’s own thoughts; in an article from The Grio, he says, “It was never meant to be that you had to pick one or the other. These are the two most prominent African-American leaders of the 20th century, and they both wanted the same thing.” Complex issues never have straightforward answers. The more important thing is that we learn from those who fought for a better world before so we can continue to fight for a better one now.

Do the Right Thing explores themes that persist in our culture today. Good films aim to entertain us, of course, but the best ones aim to teach us something about ourselves or the world we live in — if we’re willing to listen. And if we listen to what Lee’s film has to say, perhaps we can do what the film’s title suggests.

Donation Links:

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National Bail Fund Network

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